The Test for Adultery – Numbers 5:11-31
I should warn you in advance that this is a very long post. I thought about breaking it up into smaller posts, but thought that might destroy the flow of thought. It would also be helpful if you would begin by reading the text: Numbers 5:11-31
Whenever you read anything in the Bible about sexual sin, don’t make the mistake of thinking that God is only talking about sex. Sexuality is a major theme in Scripture and it is about so much more than just the physical differences between the sexes and the physical relationships that men and women enter into.
Our sexuality was created by God for the purpose of displaying deep spiritual truths about our relationship as created beings with him as our Creator. So anytime we come across any part of scripture that references our sexuality we should look for those deep truths: what does this passage reveal about me? What does it reveal about God? And what does it reveal about my relationship with God?
Because sexuality is such a major theme and because we live in a fallen world in which we as creatures have rebelled against the Creator, it follows that adultery is also quite frequently referred to in the Bible. So when we encounter adultery in Scripture, in addition to considering the plain, surface meaning of the text, we should also look for truths about a problem much deeper than our sexual dysfunction, which is our unfaithfulness and rebellion against our Creator. Yes, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” does mean, “Don’t go to bed with someone who is not your wife.” But that sexual sin of adultery is a gaping wound through which we can look into our insides and see the real problem, which is our sin against God.
So this seemingly obscure passage in Numbers in which a wife suspected of adultery goes through an elaborate test to determine her guilt or innocence does have relevance to us. When we see here the unfaithful wife, we are seeing ourselves. The humiliation that this woman experiences when she fails the test and is publicly exposed as an unfaithful wife is our humiliation. It is what would be exposed to all of your friends and family if they could see your heart, apart from the cleansing blood of Jesus and the renewal that only he can work in your life.
The passage begins with a statement of when this ceremony/test was to be utilized. But before we look at that in verse 12, remember that we are reading here from the Mosaic Law, which was given (according to the apostle Paul) to lead us to Christ. So neither Christians, nor Jews, nor Muslims, or anyone at all for that matter, are still under the ceremonial obligations of this law. It was temporary, a shadow of something fuller that was coming. It was never meant to be the way to God, but rather to point to the One who said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” The Law points to Jesus and since Jesus has come, there is no longer any need for jealous husbands to bring their wives before the priest, but more about that later…
Verse 12 gives the condition in which this test was utilized: “If a man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him.” So adultery is a “straying” from the path. We could say, SIN is a straying from the path. It is going beyond the limits that God has laid down in order to bless us and our relationships. It is stepping out-of-bounds.
Adultery is also a “breaking of faith”. This phrase speaks of a covenant relationship between two people that is based on mutual trust and commitment. And then the specific manner of this straying and this breaking of faith is spelled out: the man’s wife has had a sexual relationship with someone other than her husband. No one has witnessed this and there is no concrete proof that it has occurred. There is only a suspicion… a “spirit of jealousy” that comes over the husband.
Let’s think about this jealousy for a bit. On the face of it, this whole passage sounds (to our modern ears) very demeaning of women and at the same time it seems to condone what to us appears to be a very suspicious and condemning and untrusting attitude on the part of the husband.
The nature of the sin: Unfaithfulness and rejection of authority.
So is this jealousy a good thing or a bad thing? If we look only at the hebrew word that is translated “jealousy” we don’t get a whole lot of help. The range of meaning of this word is very broad and it is used many times throughout the Old Testament. It can refer very negatively to the sin of envy or jealousy. For example, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of the favor he had with their father and so they sold him into slavery in Egypt.
But it also used many times to refer to God. For example, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel he said, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” And even right here in the book of Numbers, on an occasion when the Israelites had begun to worship the local Canaanite gods and commit adultery with the canaanite people, one of the priests, Phinehas, in obedience to God’s command, killed one of the Israelite leaders who was involved in the adultery. And God says of him in Numbers 25:11
“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.”
In an imperfect way, the husband’s jealousy in Numbers 5:14 is a picture of the righteous jealousy that God ascribes to himself later on in the book in chapter 25, and then repeatedly all through the Old Testament.
But still this doesn’t sit right to our modern ears! Why is it the husband that has the right to accuse the wife, but there is no mention made of a wife suspecting her husband and bringing him to the priest and making him drink the water of bitterness?
First of all, we must be clear that this passage is not in any way teaching that the woman adulteress is guilty of a greater sin than the male adulterer. According to Leviticus 20:10, in cases where there was proof of adultery, both the guilty woman and the guilty man would be stoned to death. But there is something deeper here than just the sexual sin that also gives us insight into the nature of our sin against God.
Three times in the passage, it is mentioned that the woman is under her husband’s authority. In verses 19, 20, and 29. Now as soon as we start talking about authority, we run a very high risk of misunderstanding the text because our notions of what authority is and how it is exercised are so skewed by our sinfulness and by wrong conceptions of authority that we immediately start assuming all kinds of things that are not true. A man’s authority over his wife does not imply at all that he is inherently superior to her, any more than the Father is superior to the Son within the Trinity. Just as they are One God, and yet the Son submits to the Father, the man and his wife are one flesh, and the wife submits to the authority of her husband.
The point is that the relationship that God intended between the man and his wife in order to bless the wife has been thrown aside… cast off as something worthless. What was meant to be a source of joy and pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment has been exchanged for something that can never satisfy, but will only lead to defilement, disgrace, and death.
The reason that only the woman is mentioned is because what we have here is a picture of each one of us in our relationship to God. God designed the husband/wife relationship to portray our relationship with him. In our sinful rebellion we have “broken faith” with the One in authority over us–the One who is the only source of joy and pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment–and have gone astray after other lovers.
God’s jealousy, that Phinehas was commended for valuing, is a jealousy for his own glory. Yes, God was jealous for his relationship with his people, and the man here is jealous for his relationship with his wife, but it is deeper than that. God knows that it is only when he sits enthroned over a creation that is submitted to him that the creation will find fulfillment and satisfaction and eternal joy.
God is not judging the woman more harshly than the man by instituting this test. It is that the husband/wife relationship was designed by God to show us something about His relationship to us. Just as the wife is under the authority of the husband and thus receives all the blessings that God intended from that relationship, so we as God’s people are under his authority and it is only when we submit to him that we can experience all the joy and happiness and pleasure and fulfillment and satisfaction that he desires for us.
And one more thought to show that God is not picking on the woman here, but showing us something deeper about ourselves. We have to understand this passage in the broader scope of the book of Numbers. One of the themes of this book is that the Israelites… all of them, are sinful rebels who can never enter the promised land. All of them, men and women alike, are like this unfaithful wife.
This adulterous wife is a picture of Israel just as much as she is a picture of each of us. In the test that follows, you see the wife speaking an oath declaring that if she is indeed guilty, then the water of bitterness will bring a curse. Israel had spoken that oath! They had declared to God in Exodus 24:7-8 that they would keep his law. They would be faithful to him and not stray from him, but they were unable to do it. In Numbers 14, the people are on the verge of entering Canaan, but because of their fear and unbelief, they are not able to enter. And not only them, but even Moses himself is shown in Numbers to be unworthy of entering the promised Land. In chapter 20, he disobeys God and strikes the rock and as a consequence, God says that he will not enter. In chapter 12, Aaron and Miriam oppose Moses’ leadership and Miriam is struck with leprosy. They too die before entering the promised land. No one can get in! They are all too sinful, too rebellious, too adulterous!
There is only one major character in Numbers who at the end of the book is poised with the second generation of Israelites to enter the promised land. His name is Joshua in Hebrew, and in Greek… Jesus! Only Jesus can enter the promised land!
Moving on in the passage, the woman is taken through the established procedure that God will use to establish either her guilt or her innocence. We won’t look in detail at each aspect of the test but here’s a quick summary of what we read in verses 15-28.
2. The Consequence of the sin: the woman becomes a curse.
- First there is a “grain offering of remembrance (not the typical grain offering because this one has no oil, no incense). Its purpose is to “bring iniquity to remembrance.”
- She is “set before the Lord” (v. 16)
- The water of bitterness that brings the curse is prepared (holy water with dust from tabernacle floor)
- Her hair is unbound, and the grain offering of jealousy is placed in her hands.
- She takes an oath, stating that if she is not guilty of the adultery, the curse will not come upon her, but if she has gone astray, she will be made a curse and an oath, and physical affliction will come upon her
- Woman says, “amen, amen” to the curse.
- The spoken curses are written on a book and then washed into the holy water.
- A handful of the grain offering is burned on the altar.
- Finally, the woman drinks the water, and if she is guilty the consequences come upon her, if she is not guilty, then they don’t.
Try to put yourself in the place of this adulterous woman after she has gone through this ritual and been exposed publicly by Jehovah God himself as the adulteress that she is.
Imagine the humiliation. There’s a lot here that we don’t fully understand because of the language and things we don’t know about the culture, but there is enough that we do understand to see that this guilty woman is forever disgraced. She is living in pain. There’s some debate over the nature of the physical affliction, but most scholars think that the terms here refer to childlessness, but not just a closed womb, but some painful condition that keeps her from ever bearing children again… something that is obvious to everyone. She not only has been cursed, she is a curse and an oath among her people (v. 27) Imagine being a curse. Imagine hearing people say, “May you be like ________. (insert your name!)”
Imagine being a curse!
3. Jesus drank for us this cup and became a curse for us.
But now imagine that the offended husband would go to his guilty wife, before this whole ritual takes place and say, “I’m going to become you. I am going to become a woman and sit before God in your place, and have my hair taken down in front of everyone. I’m going to bear the disgrace that you deserve. I’m going to be mocked and scorned as unfaithful and adulterous. I am going to drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and become that curse instead of you.
That is what Jesus did for us.
That’s why he said to Peter in John 18:11, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
We are all adulterers. If this test in Numbers 5 were to be applied to the heart of the wife in question, there would not have been a woman in Israel nor a man who could have escaped that curse. As Jesus himself said, and the apostle James repeated, we are a sinful and adulterous people.
Do you realize and feel the weight that what is described here is a description of your own guilt before God? Have you understood, and do you daily recognize, that you could never pass the test? You could never be vindicated before God as having been faithful to him, never having strayed?
The only way to escape eternal death and condemnation in hell is to receive the salvation that God offers to us through his Son, Jesus. Have you given your life to Jesus and received that salvation?
If you have already received that salvation, do you thank the Lord Jesus every day that he became a curse for you? That he bore your humiliation and disgrace and shame, so that you might be vindicated as one who passes the test?
4. The blessings of passing the test
Look at what is spoken upon the wife who is not adulterous, but who is vindicated by Jehovah God as having been faithful to her husband. Verse 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.”
IN Christ, we receive that condition of being undefiled and clean, and so the blessing that is spoken on this woman comes upon us. Jesus took our place and became a curse, so that we might take his place and be free and conceive children. Let’s look at those two ideas more closely.
First of all, we are free. Free of what?
Free of condemnation and accusation. After passing this test, no one could point their finger at this woman and say, “You were unfaithful. You broke the covenant with your husband.” Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Free of guilt. After passing this test, this woman could know the lightness and freedom of being justified, (which is the opposite of condemnation. Condemnation is being declared “guilty”. Justification is being declared “not guilty.”) Romans 3:24 says that those who trust in Jesus, are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
Free of the humiliation and shame that we should feel. Had this woman failed the test her very name would have become an oath and a curse among her people. Her vindication meant that there was no basis for any humiliation or shame. Her honor was upheld. Romans 9:33 Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.
And we are not only free FROM, but we are free TO…
Free to enjoy a restored relationship with our Husband, the Lord Jesus. Colossians 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
Free to extend grace and love to those around us who are guilty of the same things that we were guilty of before Christ saved us. Acts 1:8 But you will receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”
Free to fulfill the purpose for which God created us. And this is what I think is the significance of the second phrase in verse 28: she shall be free and shall conceive children, I think it is pointing to God’s first command to Adam and Eve. God said, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Bearing children here is a picture of being restored to a position where we are able to bear fruit to God by fulfilling our destiny as his creatures.
1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
God made you for a purpose, which is to bring him glory, and because of what Jesus did for you, you are free to fulfill that purpose: to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
What are you doing with the freedom that Jesus bought for you by drinking your cup? Are you fulfilling the purpose for which God created you? All of us who have received the salvation that God gives us in Jesus should be asking him this question:
“Lord, I deserve to be in hell right now, under your eternal curse, but by your grace, I am here. Why, Lord? In light of all that you have done for me, show me Lord how I can declare your praises. There is no one like you, Lord, who would become a curse for me; who would take my guilt, who would take my shame, who would drink my cup. Thank you, precious Lord Jesus–my life, my hope, my joy, my all!